Local news is playing a critical role in the public health response to COVID-19, including vaccine rollout, a group of scientists, science communicators and journalists agreed during a recent briefing by the National Academies’ Standing Committee on Advancing Science Communication.
Journalists are dually responsible for holding officials accountable and not undermining public health efforts, two aims which can be in tension. The experts offered several strategies for local journalists to get communities the vaccine information they need most, combat inequities and dubious information and acknowledge uncertainties and gaps in pandemic responses.
The recommendations outline both things news coverage could use more of, and coverage strategies to reduce.
First, a few things to avoid or be cautious of:
Covering dubious information
Tara Haelle, health/science journalist, pointed out that surveys are often less valuable or newsworthy than they might seem. Depending on the survey methods used, they may not be scientific, statistically significant or representative of broader attitudes. Behavioral prediction surveys (“will you get vaccinated?”) may elicit answers more closely tied to respondents’ identity groups and how they wish to be perceived than to actual behavior.
Anecdotes or viral social media stories about unusual or negative reactions to vaccines may similarly lack context or lead audiences to draw conclusions that aren’t well supported. While these stories can be newsworthy exactly because they are unusual, people tend to remember what’s compelling more than facts they’ve heard multiple times or stories based on data, said George Washington University Professor David Broniatowski.
Large and growing numbers of people get news and information from social media, but the majority of posts come from a small percentage of users. Virality, particularly on Twitter, does not necessarily equate to importance. On the other hand, Broniatowski pointed out, the majority of vaccine-related information posted on public social media pages appears to be from credible sources (though private groups and pages may be a different story). Both science communicators and journalists tend to focus on debunking, but news organizations should be cautious of accidentally amplifying misinformation.
Drawing significant conclusions from limited research
Just as journalists should be cautious about drawing broad conclusions based on surveys, anecdotes and viral social media stories, scientific research and studies require scrutiny and caution. UW Madison science communications professor Dietram Scheufele admitted that it can be difficult to cover science “in progress,” but cautioned about covering pre-prints (studies published by researchers before they have been peer reviewed), preliminary findings and single studies.
While COVID-19 and related vaccine research is moving so quickly that important findings may not yet be peer reviewed, it’s also important to communicate that conclusions from such research are contingent. Pre-prints and outlier studies may be new or different, but that doesn’t mean they are right.
NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris added a caution against making bold claims based on press releases and pre-prints, saying his own rule is not to base an entire story on a preliminary study.
Even valid, backed up research reflects only the best information currently known. Journalists should be particularly cautious about making sure headlines reflect actual levels of uncertainty with words like may, suggests and could.
Journalists are used to empowering audiences to make their own decisions by providing key facts, but complex scientific facts often require additional context and explanation from science experts in order to be accessible to a lay audience. For example, you’ve probably been hearing about vaccines being “95% effective” – but you’re likely misinterpreting what that means in practice.
Neither journalists nor news audiences may enjoy uncertainty but it’s a reality for many areas of ongoing research.
Reporting vaccine choices as a false dichotomy of “yes” or “no”
A key question accompanying the development of a COVID vaccine was, will people get it? Vaccine hesitancy has been a large part of the vaccine rollout narrative.
Whether they report they are either likely or unlikely to get a vaccine, many or even most people are in the process of deciding whether to do so. That decision is shaped by a multitude of factors including partisanship and other identity aspects, misinformation or lack of information about vaccine safety and efficacy, and, not least, the ability to actually access a vaccine.
K. Vish Viswanath, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication, Harvard University, and James N. Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University, were able to share more detailed information about vaccine attitudes including research from the COVID States Project.
The data shows what motivators and messengers are informing vaccine decisions, and where there are opportunities for journalists to add context and helpful information to reports about hesitancy.
For example, the research shows that hesitancy often stems from lack of awareness about the rigor and extensiveness of vaccine trials and from not knowing anyone personally who has been vaccinated, suggestion additional coverage of trials and community vaccination efforts would be useful to audiences. Additionally, Melba Newsome, journalist covering COVID-19 in the Black community, has found that hesitancy can be based on mistaken history, so it’s important to get to the bottom of beliefs.
Stephanie Fryberg, University of Michigan professor of psychology, reported that in Native communities, hesitancy can stem from lack of trust in medial and government officials, but a key motivator for being vaccinated is protecting elders and vulnerable community members. However, she added, Native communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID also disproportionately lack access to care and vaccines, something tribal community members are already working hard to find creative solutions to.
Focusing on hesitancy over accessibility
Now that vaccine rollout is well underway, it’s clear that access is at least as significant a challenge to getting people vaccinated as hesitancy. For many people, the “would you get the vaccine?” question is essentially moot as questions when, where and how to get a vaccine loom.
Limited access may even counter hesitancy and spur demand, but it’s also a serious issue for which journalists can hold officials accountable and also highlight efforts at community solutions.
“Last mile” vaccine distribution efforts and access issues are one of several areas the National Academies’ science communicators suggested news could cover more.
Coverage Strategies and Story Ideas
- Cover community efforts, health equity partnerships and creative problem solving of vaccine access challenges, particularly structural and policy-based inequity. Alison Mathews of the Maya Angelou Center specifically recommended looking into the Coronavirus Prevention Network and a new NIH community engagement alliance, both efforts to engage existing, on-the ground support systems in vaccination efforts.
- Hold officials accountable for vaccine transparency, including demographic data.
- Highlight trusted messengers in your community, including scientists and researchers who are Black, Indigenous and/or people of color, as well as faith leaders, social service providers and local medical practitioners.
- Focus on vaccine access and practical, logistical information needs, beyond just where to get it, like how to get there, how to sign up and where to get help. Consider how to reach audiences with low digital access or literacy, since many vaccine efforts are requiring online signups.
- Repeat key information and data, not just unusual or outlier stories.
- Amplify expert conclusions and allow time to explain what the science means for your audience, including and especially when there is uncertainty.